Exam Day

November 10th, 2011

This is the annual College Exam Day for Korean High school students.

Companies all over the country have asked their workers to come in an hour later, freeing up the buses and trains for students to get to the classroom.  Those who are unavoidably detained can dial a special number for a police escort to the exam site.

Hundreds of thousands of people left their cars home all day so traffic noise wouldn’t disturb the test-takers.

Early-morning planes were grounded or delayed to help the students concentrate.

This is arguably the most important day in a Korean kid’s life — at least if he/she is a kid who has aspirations to higher education.  For nine grueling hours, the students pour onto the page, in response to the exam questions, random bits and pieces of what they’ve learned.  This exam is the most important factor of whether a kid goes to college and how good the college will be.

Parents and friends get up while it’s still dark to be on hand with warm tea and snacks when the kids arrive. Celebrities deliver good-luck wishes on national television.

Some experts say it’s cruel to allow so much of a kid’s future to rely on how he or she does on a single, marathon, pressure cooker of a test.  This day is, essentially, everything.  It makes the American criticism of “teaching to the test” look like a supermarket squabble.

On the other hand, there’s something reassuring in just knowing that there’s a country that empties its trains and provides police escorts to help its students get to the testing room.  Other than yet another fund-raising visit by the president, I can’t think of anything that would lead, say, LAX to postpone or delay flights.

And then there’s the fact that Korean kids, whether they’re terrified by the test or not, are beating our asses off on international comparisons of what high school graduates know.   Even here in America, Korean kids are in the top grade-point percentile, to the point where a Korean student’s A-minus, as was recently pointed out on GLEE, is also known as an “Asian F.”

There must be some connection between how highly a culture values education and how much that culture’s children learn.  Asian kids are going from our “broken” public school system straight into Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and other top colleges in numbers wildly out of proportion to their representation in the general population.   Same schools, same teachers, same textbooks.

Different parents.  Different expectations.

There has to be some way to address this.  We’re in enough trouble in America without turning out increasingly uninformed generations.  We could become a nation of house-painters and gravel-pourers except that we’re not willing to work for the wages those jobs pay.

NEXT UP, Robb continues his Proustian remembrance of things past, from Bass Lake to Bread.

12 Responses to “Exam Day”

  1. Dana King Says:

    The key is, and will always be, how highly a culture values education. Expectations are everything. Parents and society must show students what is expected, then show their appreciation.

    I taught in a public high school on the DC-Maryland border for a couple of years. What I saw there makes what you have said here no more than common sense.

  2. EverettK Says:

    My wife is a teacher. One of my best friends is (was) a teacher and school principle. His daughter is a teacher.

    I’ve been saying to them for years that there’s very little “the government” can do to improve education (not NOTHING, but little compared to…), it’s MOSTLY in the hands of the parents. Teachers can work as hard and smart as they can, but if parents aren’t setting the right expectations and attitudes at home, it’s a VERY steep up-hill battle. If parents DO set the right expecatations and attitudes at home, then most kids will learn almost regardless of the school environment.

    You can lead a horse to water, but if the horse doesn’t like drinking water, you’re going to have an ocean of unused water laying about…

  3. Suzanna Says:

    “Different parents, different expectations,” and I would add a very different society. American public schools have daunting challenges, not the least of which is to find effective ways to meet the needs of our highly diverse student population. Kudos to anyone in public education willing to try.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Interesting. Nicholas Kristof had an article about a Vietnamese family whose eldest daughter puts in a 19 hour day to take care of the family, and get an education. Her hero is her father who never misses a school conference, and dreams of his children all going to college. I’m afraid I am on the side of teachers here. The parents set the tone of an education, and need to take some responsibility for the value of schooling, and knowledge. Without a love of knowledge, we may be fun, but not very interesting.
    Totally OT-Which Ed Gorman books do you recommend?

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Sorry, Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times. I believe he, too, is married to a Chinese woman, and does a lot of traveling and observing in Asia, as well as Africa.

  6. sharai Says:

    This seems like a potentially dangerous subject and I don’t mean to detract from the seriousness of educating our young en’s – BUT – I really just wanted to say “hi, I love this blog, it’s good to hear from you, congratulations on all your hard work!, and my ‘captcha’ is 1st tnzeigh. Is that Korean?

    Sorry, my education was sub-par. But my parents are lovely people.

  7. Tom Logan Says:

    The thread, of course, is that to build a gentleman you must start with his grandfather (a quote from somewhere in my past). We want everything NOW and are not willing to take time and employ patience to build it. And it follows, then, that families and their attitudes are the key to improving education.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Dana — As a former teacher, you know. A culture that values education produces educated children. This applies whether the culture is a nation or a family. My father had to quit high school to support his family when his own father deserted them, and for him NOTHING was more important than that my brothers and I should go to college. When I struck out on long division in the fifth grade (I was, and am, a mathematical illiterate), he got me a tutor. I think the great tragedy of the American inner city is that there are so many one-parent families in which that parent is working two jobs just to keep the kids fed and has no time to participate in her kids’ education. Korea is like a gigantic family that puts education first — and look at the results.

    Everett, you and I are in full agreement. I worked with teachers for years, and they all said the variable that was most beyond their control wasn’t budget shortages or too few textbooks or multiple languages in the classroom – it was parent participation. A teacher needs to know that school continues at home.

    Suzanna, the poet John Ciardi, who translated Dante in to English, referred to translation as “the art of failure.” I think the same thing can be said of public education today, given the stresses in our society that are mirrored in the classroom. That makes parental participation all the more crucial, and singles out the educators who succeed as some of our country’s most valuable people.

    Lil, I read that story and it broke my heart. It’s inspiring and heartbreaking. Here’s a link to it so everyone can read it: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/opinion/kristof-girls-just-want-to-go-to-school.html?_r=1

    Sharai, SOOOOO glad you liked it and that you keep visiting here, and “1st tnseigh” is from a lost language called Flezhminko, spoken centuries ago by a now-extinct race of Icelandic dwarfs. It’s what they said when someone sneezed, and it translates roughly as “Keep your spit under your own rock.”

    Tom, that’s a great quote, which I have written on the palm of my hand for future theft, or rather adaptation. And it’s right on the nose. The entire culture of education is based on the long-range expectation that things will be better in the future if we turn out smarter and smarter kids. And it explains also why the Chinese can think in ten- and twenty-year plans while here, every good idea an administration has is tossed four or eight years later.

  9. Sharai Says:

    Thanks Tim. You never disappoint!

  10. Annie Says:

    Randy Newman
    Korean Parents lyrics
    Send “Korean Parents” Ringtone to your Cell
    Kids today got problems
    Like their parents never had
    Neighborhoods are dangerous
    The public schools are bad
    At home there are distractions
    So irresistible
    The hours fly by
    No work gets done

    Some Jewish kids still trying
    Some white kids trying too
    But millions of real American kids
    Don’t have a clue
    Right here on the lot
    We got the answer
    A product guaranteed to satisfy

    Korean parents for sale
    You say you’re not all
    That you want to be
    You say you got a bad environment
    Your work at school’s not going well
    [ Lyrics from: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/r/randy_newman/korean_parents.html ]
    Korean parents for sale
    You say you need a little discipline
    Someone to whip you into shape
    They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair

    Look at the numbers
    That’s all I ask
    Who’s at the head of every class?
    You really think
    They’re smarter than you are
    They just work their asses off
    Their parents make them do it

    Oh, learn to play the violin
    Oh, to turn your homework
    In right on time

    What a load off
    Your back that will be
    No tears
    No regret
    Never forget who sent Fido
    To the farm

    The greatest generation
    Your parents aren’t
    The greatest generation
    So sick of hearing about
    The greatest generation
    That generation could be you
    So let’s see what you can do
    Korean parents and you

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Annie — I’d forgotten about this. The great, great Randy Newman. The epigraph for my new Poke book is taken from another song on this LP, the cut called A FEW WORDS IN DEFENSE OF OUR COUNTRY.

    He gets better and better. Anyone who doesn’t have the HARPS AND ANGELS album (or whatever we call those things these days) should get it post-haste.

  12. Robb Royer Says:

    Then we have Nashville parents and schools… You wanna know why we have to pay $20,000 a year (per kid) to put our kids in private school? At the time I had one kid in private school and one in public. A large majority of the (public school) parents had no problem whatever sending totally illiterate kids (to high school!) and just saying ‘fix it’ to the school system. Any concept of home preparation or emphasis on education was a non starter. The attitudes of the kids were predictably terrible, the majority wearing ear buds in class and daring the teacher to make them take them out. One of the teachers told me the freshman year was pretty much a kiss off because they expected a 70% drop-out rate the first year and couldn’t really get down to teaching until the 70% left because they were so disruptive.
    Here’s the kicker… the schools had to offer a $20 Kroger’s free food card and free bus rides to get the parents to come to parent’s night at all.

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